A high-level DOE panel previously looked into these types of threats and found that it is quite difficult to sufficiently harden and protect major substations.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article with the headline: "U.S. Risks National Blackout From Small-Scale Attack." This alarming headline was, of course, picked up and curated across the national media, and the article all but tells someone how to cause a blackout.
"The U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine of the country's 55,000 electric-transmission substations on a scorching summer day, according to a previously unreported federal analysis," the Wall Street Journal reported.
The WSJ article cited a study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that it said concluded that coordinated attacks in each of the nation's three separate electric systems could cause the entire power network to collapse. "A small number of the country's substations play an outsize role in keeping power flowing across large regions. The FERC analysis indicates that knocking out nine of those key substations could plunge the country into darkness for weeks, if not months," the article said.
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. was quick to respond to the article and rigmarole surrounding it with a statement the next day. NERC stated that the electricity industry has always made reliability a priority through mandatory reliability standards and guidelines, including cyber and physical security; and through focus by utilities on preparation, prevention, response and recovery efforts, including industry and government spare equipment programs.
"While much work has been done and much more is ongoing, it is disappointing and concerning that the media would choose to disregard the existing security of our nation’s infrastructure and publish information that could impact the security of our grid," the statement read. "Publicly discussing specific vulnerabilities of critical grid assets raises serious national security concerns and undermines the substantial, ongoing work that NERC, industry and government are doing to strengthen our grid against potential cyber and physical security attacks. Articles like the one in the Wall Street Journal today do nothing to improve security, rather they jeopardize it."
NERC noted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s order on March 7 that directs the development of a standard that addresses physical security threats and vulnerabilities. NERC has initiated the standards development process in response to the commission’s order.
"Cyber and physical security have long been priorities for NERC. We remain committed to the security and reliability of the North American grid," NERC said.
Other industry groups also responded. Jo Ann Emerson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), made the following statement in response to the March 12, 2014, Wall Street Journal article:
“No one takes the security of our nation’s electric systems more seriously than the more than 900 private, not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives. Every day, NRECA works with our co-ops and partners to find more effective and efficient approaches for affordable, reliable and secure electricity throughout our network.
“We continually assess, improve and update our network to protect our systems from potential threats. There is no 'one-size fits all' approach to security for any utility. Electric co-ops are committed to working with each other, the Administration and Congress to protect the security of the electrical grid and its components to provide reliable, affordable electricity for all Americans.”
T&D World Editorial Director Rick Bush previously participated on a high-level DOE panel to look into these types of threats. The utility consensus was that it is quite difficult to sufficiently harden and protect major substations. A better approach would be to focus efforts on having access to spare transmission towers as well as substation equipment to bring back any affected facilities within a short elapsed time.
This would greatly diminish any interest by terrorists in focusing terrorist activities on the power delivery system.
PG&E responded quickly to the Metcalf substation attacks last April when gunmen shot 17 large transformers over 19 minutes before fleeing in advance of police. There were no blackouts.